“Where do you come from?”
“No, I mean, where do you really come from?”
This question is a widespread example of one of the many ways in which racism rears its head in our day-to-day lives. Some of our own colleagues have had this experience or similar ones in their private lives as well. We’re here to show you with these examples how to do things differently.
1. The many faces of everyday racism
Most of the time, everyday racism doesn’t arise from bad intentions. Rather, it stems from a lack of reflection. According to author Tupoka Ogette, everyday racism is the kind that often “comes with a smile”. And yet, it’s still hurtful, leaving its victims with a feeling of being excluded.
Why asking “Where are you from” is problematic
This question – at the latest, when it’s repeated – implies that the person it’s directed at is somehow foreign and thus doesn’t belong to our society. The reasons behind it might include a person’s skin colour or a name that doesn’t sound “German enough”. It just doesn’t occur to too many people that huge numbers of PoC (people of colour) in Germany are, in fact, German. (Note: People of Colour is an international self-designation created by people who experience racism. It is used as an alternative to foreign names derived from a white-centric society.)
Sandra from our HR knows this problem too well. When she was a child, she was the target of everyday racism in the form of derogatory comments about her skin colour or her natural hair. Although the day-to-day discrimination has lessened over time, she’s still constantly nervous about comments – like being asked where she really comes from and knowing that responding with her German hometown won’t be enough for many people. In fact, some people are annoyed by her response: It catches them off guard, and may even challenge their world view.
I think the discourse about racism in Germany is still in its early days. Many people don’t realise how deeply racism is rooted in our society. We need to speak much more openly about racism to break the taboos around it. Without dialogue, there cannot be change.
Other forms of everyday racism: Microaggressions (comments intended to be compliments or jokes)
Everyday racism can also take the form of comments that appear to be well-intentioned. An example of these microaggressions? “You speak German so well for being Turkish!” And if the person receiving this “compliment” reacts by saying they’re German? The same doubts are cast as in the “where do you come from” question above.
The problem lies in how it’s framed: This comment, intended to be a compliment, still singles someone out as not belonging. Who else would get praise for speaking their native language so well?
Jokes can also hurt deeply if they’re told at the expense of a particular group that makes up a minority of the joke’s audience. The first example that comes to mind is that of Apu from the American series The Simpsons. The show’s racist tones were only examined and criticised late in its run. Our Area Product Manager Shashi knows how hard it is to be the only representative of a minority associated with these negative clichés. When he was nine, he moved to the Detroit area and got no end of teasing from other kids:
In America, when I was growing up there were no representations of South Asians in pop culture, except Apu in the Simpsons. This was terrible, especially since the community of immigrants around me was high-end professionals: doctors, engineers, academics, etc. Still, kids are mean and would often make fun of us by using Apu’s terrible “Indian” accent. That was everyday racism in my childhood.
(Shashi, Product Management)
Everyday racism in public
Still, Indian-born Shashi loves Detroit for its music, which has stuck with him as well as his family to this day. Coming to Germany as an adult, he was shocked by how many Germans were surprised by his academic title, as it apparently didn’t match their preconceptions of a South Asian man. He’s also often stared at in the underground – especially when he’s travelling with his wife, a white woman from Münster. When they visit his in-laws in Münster, he makes a game out of messing with people’s expectations:
Münsteraner have a particular style of clothes, which is influenced partly by the aristocracy around the area. I find them quite classically cool and wear them often. This is also surprising to people. Even before they hear me speak American English, I can tell they are a bit confused about how I know and own their uniforms; it can be quite hilarious, actually.
(Shashi, Product Management)
Charlene, who’s been with us in Customer Service for seven years, has the feeling that she experienced racism more often in the past than nowadays. But she is concerned that it’s because children are an easier target than the confident young woman she considers herself to be now. Even thought it’s not easy, our Afro-German colleague enters these kinds of situations consciously, but respectfully – and explains to the person why their behaviour was inappropriate and racist. But not everyone reacts reasonably.
Once when I was coming home on a tram in the late afternoon, there was an older man making racist jokes about Black people, which I won’t go into detail about. As soon as I realised he was directing these jokes directly at me, I confronted him and tried to bring him some awareness of his own racism. But he continued making racist comments. So I moved to another seat. In this situation, I’d hoped that people around me would have acted in solidarity, but they just ignored what was going on. We victims aren’t exaggerating when we describe situations like this. Everyday racism is real.
(Charlene, Customer Service)
Everyday racism is a silent presence during leisure activities
Fabio has been working in our Finance department since 2017 and is the team lead for online accounting. He lives in Cologne, but comes from Gronau, which is near Münster. The German-Italian has a large circle of friends from a range of countries, so he’s had both direct and indirect experience with everyday racism, whether in his football club or during (what was supposed to be) an evening at the club. There was one open-air concert which he and his friends had bought tickets to in advance, but when they tried to get in, some of his friends were turned away at the entrance. Apparently because they “weren’t in line with the style” of the event. No further explanation was given, but it was clear that Fabio’s friends were shut out for looking too foreign. It turned out that Fabio’s friends were not the only ones given this excuse. The event organiser was hit with scathing criticism after the event.
Football fan Fabio has tried to address racism verbally on the pitch, but he has rarely managed to change anyone’s mind. And that’s another reason why Fabio doesn’t see the status quo changing any time soon.
It’s just sad that everyday racism still has such a strong presence – whether in sports, in the form of police violence (like in the US) or in our day-to-day lives. It’s also absurd that people are able to vote for political parties like the [far-right] AfD here in Germany. And other countries aren’t far behind. I feel like we’re constantly taking two steps back when it comes to everyday racism.
When double standards come into play
Lam Di is an intern on the Controlling team. His personal experiences with everyday racism span from “where are you from” to specific prejudices against certain ethnic groups. He considers it normal that his friends, colleagues and managers come from different ethnic backgrounds than he does. And he values teams which have that diversity.
Another component of everyday racism which he brought up involves being held to a double standard.
If someone with a foreign background makes a mistake, it reflects on everyone of the same background. And that’s not the case with people who don’t have this ethnic background. I wish that more people who don’t come from other countries were more aware of their privilege.
(Lam Di, Controlling)
All the aspects mentioned above only scratch the surface of this complex topic. However, they all show how widespread and insidious everyday racism is – and that it’s easy to prevent in many contexts. Below, we’ve brought together useful tips and a small list of sources for more information.
2. Tips to fight everyday racism
As a company with employees from 47 different nations – a rising trend – it’s very important to us that everybody feels welcome here, no matter where they’re from. And we take it seriously when it comes to sharing knowledge about everyday racism. We take a stand for diversity. Not least because ethnicity and nationality are only a fraction of the many dimensions of diversity. We support the Charter of Diversity and strongly support the annual Diversity Month. But how can you do something against discrimination when you’re just one person?
Start by checking your own racism:
– If you’re white, be aware of your white privilege. It’s not about your skin colour per se, but the privileged standing that people who look like you hold in society. As a white person, chances are you’re part of the majority in your society (like here in Germany). You’re the default option being represented in the media, medicine and government (to name a few). Or, in the words of Courtney Ahn: “White privilege doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been hard, it means your skin tone isn’t one of the things making it harder!”
– The next time it’s on the tip of your tongue to ask someone where they come from or where they were born, think about whether you’d ask that to someone who looks more like you. Or, as our colleague Shashi puts it: “Be kind and assume that the person belongs exactly where they are.”
– If you still find yourself asking this question, accept the first answer you’re given. Even if it doesn’t match the answer you were expecting.
– If you see someone who’s the victim of everyday racism, don’t take it sitting down: Offer to help the person. The University of Cambridge has tips on how to be an active bystander (link: https://www.breakingthesilence.cam.ac.uk/prevention-support/be-active-bystander)
– Question the preconceptions and stereotypes about different ethnicities and cultures that you might be holding unconsciously.
– If someone lets you know that a comment you made was hurtful, take their feedback seriously and reflect on it. Hearing this from someone doesn’t mean that they think you’re a bad person. Use the situation as a chance to learn more about hidden racism that you weren’t previously aware of.
Background information: People will often react defensively to such comments. They themselves didn’t notice that their behaviour was racist, and it clashes with their self-perception (“I’m not racist!”), leading them to feel attacked. In the worst cases, the marginalised person is dismissed for being “too sensitive”, and expected to apologise for their opinion. Unfortunately, our colleagues have also personally run up against these kinds of psychological defence mechanisms. But being convinced that the everyday racism in one’s life is just an illusion can lead a marginalised person to doubt their own perceptions, as Shashi explained to us.
– Get informed: There are countless ways to confront everyday racism, whether in the form of workshops, podcasts, videos or articles and books.
Here is a small selection of relevant content:
– Alice Hasters: What white people don’t want to hear about racism (book in German, article with a summary in English: https://www.katrinfigge.com/book-reviews/2020/12/30/what-white-people-dont-want-to-hear-but-should-know-about-racism-by-alice-hasters) The book’s reception by critics is a perfect example of everyday racism in action: A well-known German comedian called the book a “big deal in the US”, although Hasters is from Cologne and the book has never even been translated into English.
– Tupoka Ogette: Exit Racism. The bestselling author and well-known anti-racist consultant offers an online class and workshops. In 2021, as part of Google’s Zukunftswerkstatt (Future Workshop), she held a keynote on antiracism.
– In their podcast Rice and Shine, Vanessa Vu and Minh Thu Tran talk through stories about being Vietnamese-German. Both are children of emigrants from Vietnam. Their podcast looks at stereotypes and examines the fine line between appreciation and cultural appropriation.
– 20 tips on acting less racist
– Warum es keinen Rassismus gegen Weiße gibt (German article which cites mostly English sources)
– Robin DiAngelo: White Fragility: Why it’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism
– Aminata Touré: We can be more: The power of diversity
– Mohamed Amjahid: The White Spot: Instructions for Antiracist Thinking
– Emilia Roig: Why We Matter: The End of Suppression
– Noah Sow: Germany in Black and White Daily Racism (also on Spotify as an audiobook)
Summary: Everyday racism, in all its various forms, is a lot more pervasive than we realise. Even though most people agree that the future is diverse, there’s still much more to do – for society, companies and individuals. Or, as Tupoka Ogette puts it in Exit Racism: “Don’t give up. The fight against racism is generations long, not a quick revolution. Be realistic with your expectations. Stay constructive and keep your heart in the right place.” Many thanks to our colleagues. This article would not have been possible without your input.